Northern Exposure

The perils of a polar safari.

NUVO Magazine: Northern Exposure

My airflow was cut off, my eyes began to bulge and water, my cheeks turned redder than tomatoes at harvest time, and it dawned on me that I was actually on the verge of passing out. Or was I about to suffer a far worse fate? Was this how it was going to end? Up in the unforgiving Arctic, thousands of kilometres from home, enduring the same awful fate as John Franklin and Henry Hudson and all those other mad Englishmen who perished while looking for the ever-elusive Northwest Passage?

It certainly felt as though the Grim Reaper was tapping his bony, frigid finger on my shoulder, giving me that dreaded signal to exit stage right. In any event, I somehow instinctively knew that if I did not act soon and with great conviction, the folks back home would be using my moniker in the past tense. “Menzies? Oh yeah. Real whack job. Went on something called a ‘polar safari’. Ended quite tragically. Guy didn’t even get a bay or an inlet named after him.”

My strangulation trauma took place on the 12th day of a polar safari, a cool-sounding name for what is actually a hellacious two-week expedition into nature’s deep freezer.

I was one of three journalists conscripted for the excursion, which entailed a gruelling 1,200-kilometre snowmobile trek through the wicked winter wonderland that is the Richmond Gulf area of northern Quebec and Nunavut. As vacations go, it was tantamount to a condensed version of Survivor, albeit without the hotties parading around in halter tops. This was due to both an abundance of days in which the wind chill factor dropped the temperature lower than –30 C, and a dearth of hotties, be they hot, lukewarm or stone cold.

Truth be told, the polar safari looked good on paper. Hot-air balloon over majestic, ice-capped vistas! Interact with the Cree and the Inuit! Observe a profusion of wildlife, including caribou, polar bears, wolves, seals and beluga whales, all tearing each other apart in their natural habitat! Marlin Perkins, eat your heart out.

Indeed, before entering this wild kingdom, we were sternly cautioned about the polar bears. Notorious ambush hunters, polar bears—like Central Park muggers—have been known to lie in wait for lackadaisical tourists. Should any of us happen to bump into a polar bear by accident, we were told not to play dead—the bear won’t be fooled and it will eat you. Nor were we supposed to run away, since a polar bear can chase down a chemically enhanced Ben Johnson if need be. (Besides, there really is nowhere to run when you’re already in the middle of nowhere.)

Instead, we were told to make a beeline straight for the hulking carnivore, always ducking right upon getting within clawing distance. Some say that polar bears are left-handed, and by dodging right, the southpaw’s paw will miss. In theory.

I had one concern, and rather sheepishly addressed the organizer, John, during dinner at an Ottawa restaurant before we left: “After you duck right, then what do you do?”

Everybody laughed and then someone ordered another Yorkshire pudding, and before you knew it, the subject had changed. I never did get an answer.

But I digress. For on day 12 of the polar safari, it was not a large white bear that was choking the life from me. Rather, my assailant was Louis, a journalist from Laval, Quebec. My hyperactive French-Canadian colleague had decided to invoke his best impression of Mad Dog Vachon by administering the mother of all camel clutches.

To be sure, I wasn’t looking for such an altercation. I recall offering Louis a Jack Link’s Meat Stick, a fabulous food staple I had stockpiled at Quebec’s version of the Last Chance Gas Bar. In my unabashed enthusiasm for the tasty foodstuffs, I had forgotten that Louis was, in fact, a vegetarian.

Shockingly, or perhaps not so, Louis conveyed his gratitude by punching me—a bit too hard for my liking—on my right shoulder. I responded with a shot to his solar plexus (the fool dodged right, no doubt believing that I, like a polar bear, was a lefty). In fairly short order, I was lying prone on the ground, gasping for air while enduring a choke hold that would’ve snapped the neck of a harp seal.

Granted, if it had been a one-tonne member of Ursus maritimus that had me in its grasp, I likely would have succumbed, and quickly. But the very idea of being vanquished by a 170-lb. vegan seemed too inglorious an ending for a meat eater such as yours truly. Thus, with my remaining willpower, I managed to wriggle my hands free. I then grabbed Louis’s right pinky finger, bending the digit backwards to a rather painful angle. He screamed like a Wendigo caught in a leg-hold trap; I gasped and wheezed, and all was well again.

But it was at this precise moment that I had an epiphany. Namely, that the line between beer-commercial male-bonding camaraderie (along the lines of “Me and the boys and our 50”) and Lord of the Flies­–style anarchy is razor thin.

I mean, hanging with the guys is a wondrous thing, be it pick-up hockey games or weekend fishing trips. But we—that is to say, men—really mustn’t be separated from the maternal, caring, and nurturing attributes of womankind for any great length of time. Because if we are, we simply end up wanting to kill one another for absolutely no good reason—even when isolated in an environment like the Richmond Gulf, a picture-perfect postcard of serenity.

Epiphany number two: never offer a die hard vegetarian a processed meat stick.

Thankfully, we did have wonderful guides chaperoning us; otherwise I fear we’d still be up there strangling each other into submission, and waiting for the search-and-rescue team to arrive. Our guides were George and his eerily quiet son, Paul, who never met a ptarmigan he didn’t want to blow out of the sky with his always-loaded shotgun.

Polar safari: a cool-sounding name for what is actually a hellacious two-week expedition into nature’s deep freezer.

The other scribe on the trip was Sam, from Wisconsin. Sam knew his way around a hostile wasteland; he had previously gone with three of his hard-core friends on a 90-day canoe expedition that took them from remote northern Saskatchewan to the even-more remote Arctic Ocean, an arduous and monotonous excursion amounting to more than 2,000 kilometres of paddling and portaging.

In truth, much like Sam’s canoe trip, there was a certain degree of monotony to the polar safari, which was due in part to uncooperative wind conditions. Although we spent two weeks towing a hot-air balloon (as well as our tent, food, fuel, etc.) on sleds, we only got to experience a half-day of actual ballooning.

And while a 1,200-kilometre jaunt might not sound that daunting in this day and age of intercontinental jet travel, when one is perched upon a Ski-Doo, it can be a bona fide odyssey.

In fact, while riding a snowmobile for hours on end across a landscape resembling a vanilla milkshake in a blender, the mind tends to wander. Sometimes you think of your loved ones. Sometimes you think of those you do not love (and what you’d like to do to them). Unfortunately, in my case I was bedevilled with having the chorus of “Mr. Roboto” playing over and over in my head. I cursed Dennis DeYoung and I cursed Styx, and I think I cursed the entire Eighties rock movement at one point.

There were occasional (and welcome) distractions. On the way back to Long Point, for example, we came across a frozen body of water now known as Dog Shit Lake. As the story goes, this was the farthest point reached by an all-female dogsled team from France. The women were hoping to make it all the way to the North Pole, but decided they just couldn’t take it anymore. They camped by the lake as they made plans for their return home. In the meantime, they allowed their huskies to run laps around the frozen lake. Not surprisingly, the canines left their frozen calling cards behind, making the lake seem very much like the sidewalks of Paris.

Another source of botheration was, in fact, the call of nature. Out in the frozen barrens, even an outhouse is a luxury, so visiting the restroom meant squatting behind a snowbank. The sensation of a sub-zero wind billowing up the tradesman’s entrance is not something I want to experience again anytime soon.

Discomforts aside, we all made it back, and near the end of the trip, we learned that the polar-safari people had been making notes on us journalists; the organizers wanted to do some research in order to fine-tune future expeditions for the paying customers.

Thus, a few weeks after making it back to my abode in lukewarm Richmond Hill, John sent me an e-mail outlining how he planned to improve the polar safari for the following season.

“We do not believe that our market for this trip is young, energetic, outdoor types who can often discover the world better without help,” he wrote—likely in reference to my companions.

“Our market will also likely not include persons who expect a high level of service on their tours,” he wrote—likely in reference to, well, me.

John also wisely decided to make future polar safaris coed. “We believe our demographic will be couples between the ages of 45 and 65, close to or in retirement, with substantial disposable income, who were active throughout their lives and are still interested in experiencing an adventure well beyond the relaxing pace of most tours,” wrote John. And thus, the idea of a polar safari being a male-bonding exercise went by the wayside. No loss; after all, the only near-fatality on the trip was not due to an avalanche or starvation, or even a right-handed polar bear. Rather, it is now evident that cabin fever mixed with an excess of testosterone is a four-star recipe for attempted homicide.

But at least I never had to evade a polar bear.